Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Ronald Thomas begins playfully enough, with acknowledgments to colleagues who are likened to a series of “equally culpable suspects” in a mystery story and with a dedication to his “partner in life if not in crime” (xvii, xviii). But readers will quickly recognize in this book a weighty contribution to the acclaimed interdisciplinary series, the Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, under the general editorship of Gillian Beer. Thomas, it is true, offers us “a series of investigations” (4) of paradigmatic instances of fictional detection reflecting both British and American traditions, from Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) to Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934), but not in the form of a looseleaf literary casebook. Rather the investigations are tightly bound together by the concern with developments in forensic technology over the same period, and the legal and political ramifications of their role in “reading the symptoms of criminal pathology in the individual body and the social body” (3). The theoretical debts are, above all, to Michel Foucault:

The centrality of the detective narrative for the nineteenth century is based on its crucial role in the process of making and monitoring the modern subject. (8)

and to Benedict Anderson:

Anglo-American detective fiction appears in a post-revolutionary environment when the heroic status of the rebel or the criminal is transferred to the detective and the police. Since these narratives generally involve the identification of some criminal singled out as a distinct “other” who poses a threat to a new sense of the social order, they must also be seen as part of the history of nationalist discourse during a critical period of the nineteenth century. (10)

Thomas, however, leaves quite a bit of room for literary manouevre by distancing his approach from that of critics who see the ideological function of the detective as “singular and monolithic”. In contrast to, most notably, Franco Moretti in “Clues” (from Signs Taken for Wonders, 1983) and D.A. Miller in The Novel and the Police (1988), Thomas insists that “detective literature both reinforces and resists the disciplinary regime which it represents” (14).

The narratives discussed reveal interpretations of the category of detective fiction both narrow (Poe, Doyle, Christie, Chandler) and broad (Dickens, Hawthorne, Twain, Conrad). They reflect three distinct stages of development—the emergence of the form in the mid-Victorian decades, its hardening into a popular genre around the turn of the century, and finally its parody and contestation between the wars. Yet the overarching structure of this book is determined not by these moments but by the development of three key “devices of truth”—the lie detector, the mug shot, and the fingerprint. In some of the narratives analyzed, the use of the devices is reflected directly, as in the portraits which play such an important part in the plot of both Dickens’s Bleak House and Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Here, as we might expect given the author’s track record in the fields of photography and film, Thomas is especially sharp. In other narratives the operation of these devices is shown to be strangely foreshadowed, as when Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) finds a “bizarre mechanical incarnation” in Cesare Lombroso’s polygraph fifty years later (21), or when the bloody fingerprint in Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887) briefly anticipates the introduction of this system of identification by the metropolitan police in 1894.

The chapter on “The letter of the law in The Woman in White,” naturally of particular interest to readers of the Wilkie Collins Society Journal, falls into the section devoted to the lie detector. Though “no mechanical devices are used to detect the network of lies” pervading Collins’s novel, the reliance on “the machinery of the Law”, which Walter Hartright announces in his prefatory remarks to the narrative, is seen to prefigure their operation (59). Thomas’s thesis is that, in this novel, as indeed in all sensation novels, “[i]nterrogations into the moral ‘character’ and motivations of suspicious persons . . . gradually give way to investigations into their ‘identity’” (59-60). (This helps to explain why the English literary establishment exhibited so much anxiety about the emergence of sensation fiction and directed its anger especially against its perceived “failures in the area of character development” [62]) The shift towards the understanding of subjectivity in terms of physical embodiment requires the presentation of documents recording the history of the body—certificates of birth, marriage, and death, and so on. These in turn demand a new class of professionals to endorse them—like the “solicitor of great experience in his profession” to whom, in his own preface, Collins claims to have submitted the proofs of the novel for vetting before publication. Thus The Woman in White bears witness to a moment when the machinery of authority starts to expand beyond “the identification of criminals to all of us” (60).

Thomas’s study is thus a rich and complex one to which it is difficult to do full justice in the space available here. However, I cannot conclude without expressing a slight feeling of regret that this volume does not talk more about the French contribution to the development of detection and detective fiction. By offering a comparative as well as an interdisciplinary approach, by focussing not on two but three “national traditions” (7), this very good book might have been made even better. The forensic work of Bertillon in Paris is discussed at some length, but there is no attempt to focus on the detective narratives of, say, Balzac, Gaboriau, or Leblanc, and their relations to the French “disciplinary regime.” More surprisingly, there is not a single mention of Régis Messac’s monumental Le “Detective Novel” et l’influence de la pensée scientifique (1929), which—though it obviously belongs to a very different intellectual universe—can make a claim to have been the first work of modern scholarship to stake out the ground that Thomas maps so precisely here. But perhaps, with so much already on offer, it might seem mere greed to ask for more.